Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman
Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, center. Photo by Moti Milrod
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"What is education today? Education is Torah! And more Torah! Whoever seeks happiness should teach his son Torah." This statement was made earlier in the week by Israeli Haredi leader Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman during a brief visit to France. Israelis might be accustomed to hearing such sentiments from the Lithuanian religious authority of Bnei Brak, but in France the declaration took on heightened significance, and was seen as a Haredi challenge to the French law mandating study of core subjects such as mathematics, science, language and history in all private schools.

Shteinman was in France for a brief visit to a Paris suburb, where he came as a guest of local Haredi institutions. Some 10,000 people greeted the rabbi who has in recent years become a revered figure among French Haredi communities. His authority in this locale preceded his ascendance as "the leader of the generation," following the recent death of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv.

Shteinman's presence reinforced the stand of local schools that do not teach general subjects, such as Paris' Yad Mordechai," which hosted Shteinman.

Among Israel's Lithuanian Haredim, Shteinman has for years been considered a supreme authority on educational matters, spearheading the opposition to the introduction of secular subjects in Haredi schools. Two years ago he hosted at his home a meeting of Haredi rabbis and sages in response to concerns that Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar would require Haredi yeshivas and other institutions to teach core secular subjects.

France is home to a number of private religious institutions, most of them Catholic, which receive government funding. Such institutions are required to teach a minimum amount of hours in core subjects. This requirement applies to Haredi yeshivas where high-school-age boys are enrolled. In Israel, such yeshivas receive allocations, but core studies requirements are not strictly enforced. In France, a private institution must give 26 hours a week of instruction in core subjects to receive a "contract" with the government that promises it state funding. These allocations fully cover the salaries of instructors who teach the core disciplines, and include a 500-euro payment per pupil enrolled.

Shteinman's visit came at a time when the French public is engaging in a sensitive discussion about private education. France's Jewish community is also embroiled in a debate over whether Haredi institutions should teach core secular subjects. Most Orthodox Jewish institutions in France integrate general studies in the curriculum, but as many as 10 Haredi institutions reject core studies, and are financed entirely by private donations. The object of Shteinman's visit was to strengthen these institutions.